A virtue rediscovered
Wendy Shalit’s A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue analyses some of the worst consequences of the sexual revolution. Shalit is bold in her approach and in her final goal. She wants a new sexual revolution – one that will reinstate the recognition of gender differences and the great value of that much-abused virtue of modesty.
Modesty, claims Shalit, is pivotal. It can never be entirely banished, since it is at the core of sexuality. The more we have denied that gender differences exist and trivialised sex in the name of liberation, the more enslaved we have become. Men and women are now bereft of any guidelines by which to relate to and respect each other.
Thus, says Shalit, having thrown away time-honoured rules, today young people are forced into a ‘guerrilla etiquette’, which is fashioned ‘not out of any wealth of stored wisdom, traditions, or familial advice, but simply out of necessity, broken hearts, and the discovery that maybe we are human, after all’. Without modesty, we are confused and even bored by sexuality.
Shalit uses personal accounts, literature and letters to magazines to describe views and practices of sexuality in the nineties. Her method of delivery is by turn graphic, speculative and humorous. One has the impression that she is consolidating the thoughts of several years.
She indicates an overall structure to the book, but arguments and anecdotes blend in such a way that lucidity and rigorous argument are occasionally casualties. We learn much about the author herself throughout the book. As she says, it is a story of how the idea of modesty came to captivate her personally. She states:
‘I would have preferred to avoid this personal thread and hide behind the disinterested sociological, the speculative philosophical. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. I simply found it impossible to clear up what I perceive to be some central misunderstandings about modesty without, in some cases, getting very specific. Since I want to recover the idea, to submit what a case for modesty looks like, I have needed to rely on my experience – as well as that of other young women – to fill in the gaps.’
There are both negative and positive consequences to Shalit’s method. She dwells so much on current society and pop culture that many of her references may be unrecognisable in years to come.
Furthermore, in emphasising the empirical and having such a free-floating style, it is hard to glean a substantial picture of what modesty actually is. Shalit gives us clues, but never a complete answer. She admits that she does not have the entire answer herself. Those who admired modesty in the past never actually defined it.
Modesty was so taken for granted, so much a part of the consciousness of society, that there was no need to state its nature. Shalit claims though that the recovery of modesty could bring us back to circumstances where women are modest and men are honourable, where they enjoy mutual respect and where neither men are not afraid to be men, nor women ashamed to be women.
This message alone is ageless. A notable positive result of Shalit’s style is that her packaging of such an unusual thesis in a very current mode has immediately assured her an audience in her own time.
A Return to Modesty’s popularity in the United States indicates that her message is both welcome and recognisable to a confused generation of women.
Interestingly, Shalit discusses how feminism can often be exceedingly misogynous. Simone de Beauvoir is a case in point. Rather than allowing for any real choice or individuality on the part of women, Beauvoir calls wives ‘parasites’, mothers ‘discontented women’, and a woman in love a ‘paranoiac’.
Feminism also denies the natural desire a woman might have for a happy marriage, where she is secure under the protection of her husband.
For Shalit in the end the good in feminism is far outweighed by the bad and she is staunchly in favour of a society where its men protect its women. Past societies which valued women and modesty were far better equipped to give such security.
When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America in the 19th century he commented that in that nation a woman could safely walk the streets, protected by the high esteem in which she was held by virtue of her sex and supported by the law of the land, which punished a rapist with death. Now, since sex is devalued, so is the gravity of rape diminished, and the law is more and more confused as to what actually constitutes rape.
Shalit finally provides hope for the future, indicating that when individual women take a stand – dressing, acting and thinking modestly – they find security and happiness. Shalit argues implicitly that a return to modesty is a return to innocence. She shows that her generation, raised on sex education, lost its innocence too early and was taught to look with an unembarrassed eye on anything sexual.
Having herself escaped sex education – thanks to parental intervention – Shalit comments that her own sense of the sexual was much more mysterious – and in the end healthier and more interesting. Sexual modesty is more erotic than immodesty, because it provides for intimate disclosure rather than rampant exhibitionism. This is one of Shalit’s strongest arguments.
A Return to Modesty is very much a book for our time and hopefully it is the beginning, not the end, of Shalit’s work with this material.